Population

1.418 billion (2019)

Official Language

Chinese

Currency

Renminbi (RMB)

Important Ministries 

Official Statistics Office

National Bureau of Statistics of China (NBS) is responsible for statistics and economic accounting in China.

Trade Associations 

Publishers Association of China

Annual Book Fairs

Beijing International Book Fair is held annually at the China International Exhibition Centre.

Hong Kong Book Fair is held annually (usually in the middle of July) at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

China Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair is held annually at the Shanghai World Expo Exhibition and Convention Centre.

VAT on Books

Fixed Book Price System

Trade Magazine 

Statistics 

Contents

1. China at a Glance 

1.1 China in 2019
1.2 China’s book market
1.3 Government oversight and censorship

2. Trade Publishing 

2.1 Fiction Bestsellers 2018
2.2 Non-Fiction Bestsellers 2018
2.3 Children’s Bestsellers 2018
2.4 Top English language titles (imports)
2.5 Translation and sub-rights agencies
2.6 Selected sub-rights agencies in China
2.7 Top books in Chinese translation, 2018

3. Education Publishing

3.1 Bestselling education books (2018)

4. Chinese Publishers

4.1 Top state-owned publishing groups
4.2 Top state-owned trade publishing houses
4.3 Top private trade publishers
4.4 Top education publishers

 

5. China’s Booksellers and Importers

5.1 Import and distribution agencies
5.2 Selected import agencies
5.3 Bricks-and-mortar retail
5.4 Selected physical retailers
5.5 Online retail
5.6 Major online retailers
5.7 Social e-commerce
5.8 Selected social e-commerce retailers

6. Audio and E-books

6.1 Audiobooks
6.2 Selected audiobook platforms
6.3 E-books
6.4 Selected digital reading platforms

7. Directory

7.1 Selected trade bodies
7.2 Selected book publishers (trade and education)
7.3 Selected private publishers (culture companies)
7.4 Selected sub-rights agencies

In-depth Country Profile

1. China at a Glance

1.1 China in 2019

When Xi Jinping became China’s “Chairman of Everything” in 2012, he assumed the leadership of a country firmly on the ascendancy. During the prior 30 years of reform and opening, 800m people in China were lifted out of poverty – more than in any other time and place of human history, according to the World Bank. Yet years of endemic corruption coupled with a widening gap between the richest and the poorest saw Xi also inherit a nation where levels of discontent and frustration were high. His tasks: to deliver economic stability by ensuring GDP growth remained above 6.5%, and to shore up the position of Communist Party ideology at the centre of peoples’ lives.

In January 2019, in the teeth of a Sino-US trade war and a reported softening in domestic demand, China recorded annual GDP growth figures for 2018 of 6.7% – still within its necessary target range, but a clear signal that the rate of investment and spending in the country had cooled. Some analysts suggest GDP growth could fall to 6.2% by the end of 2019. Whether this signals a coming financial crisis, an inevitable slowdown, or something in between remains to be seen.

The Publishing Industry

Creativity in China sits firmly under the control of the central government, viewed as both an essential part of the future “ideas” economy and a critical element of the nation’s propaganda machinery.

There are 55 state-owned publishing groups with approximately 400 publishing houses within their ranks. ISBNs are only issued to state-owned groups and houses. Privately-owned publishing companies are generally designated as “culture companies” (文化公司), studios (工作室), or distributors (发行公司). There are an estimated 1,000 active culture companies operating in China. These private companies perform all the functions of a publisher with the exception of attaching ISBNs and authorising print runs, for which they must enter into commercial arrangements with state-owned partners.

1.2 China’s book market

The value of China’s national retail market grew +11.3% in 2018 to RMB89.4bn (£10.2bn)¹, according to Beijing OpenBook, China’s main independent source of book data.² Sales through online bookstores grew +24.7% YOY in 2018 to RMB57.3bn (£6.5bn), while retail from bricks and mortar stores declined -6.69% to RMB32.1bn (£3.7bn). This one-year decline wiped out five years of slender growth in sales through physical stores brought about, in part, by government tax benefits to stimulate the sector.

1.3 Government overnight and censorship

Media and content in China is strictly monitored and regulated by a network of government bodies. In recent years publishing fell under the auspices of the State Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT). Since the formal dissolution of the body in March 2018, the Propaganda Bureau took over the regulation of books and news media, albeit employing the previous related personnel and using the same organisational structure.

Local Publishing

Censorship in China operates on many levels. At its most basic, editors and publishers routinely self-censor acquisitions, as well as adjust translations and book edits based on perceptions of what is and isn’t permissible. In addition, government officials will call private meetings to update publishers on areas of short-term sensitivity and alert them to upcoming clampdowns. Formal written guidance is generally not available to foreign-owned entities from these closed-door sessions, and publishers must rely on their own networks and relationships for information.

Temporary clampdowns are regularly enacted during key political anniversaries or as part of campaigns aimed at addressing areas of social concern. The year 2019 has many sensitive dates, including the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic in October and the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Tian’anmen Square Massacre in June.

The most visible recent clampdown affecting international publishers was the freeze on new ISBNs for children’s trade books in translation in early 2017; other clampdowns have targeted content related to recent history, ethnic minority culture, fantasy, homosexuality, and religion.

Chinese publishers apply annually for an allocation of ISBNs. While publishers submit book titles, author names, and genres for the year ahead, in practice the authorities will not crawl over lists book-by-book, and ISBNs may be switched around as necessary according to variances in publishing schedules.

Titles likely to attract significant attention, such as those from major international political or business figures, or those directly addressing subjects concerning Chinese social and political history, will be submitted for approval ahead of publication, and the authorities will require detailed line changes. Failure to make the required changes will mean print approval is withheld. State-owned publishers are unwilling to risk the consequences of publishing an unauthorized book. These start with fines, and can escalate up to the loss of business operating licenses and prison sentences. The public “banning” of books is rare in China, but withdrawal of reprint approval of backlist titles does happen regularly and during periodic category clampdowns.

Editors and publishers in China report certain trade publishing houses being given up to 25% fewer ISBNs in 2018, and insiders suggest that a further cut is likely for 2019. The official reason is to focus on the quality rather than quantity of publishing, although a by-product is increased conservatism in title and author selection by publishers and a consolidation of power in the hands of an ever-smaller group of companies.

The state-owned publisher will be held politically and commercially liable for any problematic content published under their ISBN, whether or not it was published in partnership with a private culture company. This puts the ultimate burden of censorship firmly on the shoulders of the state-owned entity.

Imported Foreign Language Books

Books under overseas ISBNs must enter China through one of approximately 40 state-owned import agencies. Importers serve a dual purpose, in equal parts political filters and for-profit distribution businesses. As with local publishing, there is no public list of banned books, nor a formal appeals process for a book denied importation. Refusal of a title by one importer does not automatically mean another importer will refuse it.

Lists of banned and sensitive words will be informally circulated among import agencies. These lists are subject to change without notice. Audio and e-books under foreign ISBNs must undergo the same “import” process, and must be supplied to third party retailers via an approved state-owned importer with an e-book sales remit (see section 6). The rule of thumb is that anything addressing the “three Ts” – Tibet, Taiwan, and Tian’anmen – cannot be imported; added to that in recent years are mentions of Chinese leaders, living or dead, often regardless of whether that reference be positive, negative, or benign. Maps must be drawn to reflect the Beijing government’s view on key borders, including the Line of Actual Control between China and India, and the textual designation of Taiwan as a province not a country (although fudging the question by not labelling Taiwan is generally ok).

2. Trade Publishing

A total of 203,000 new titles were published in China in 2018, with the annual total of new title releases across the market roughly flat since 2012. According to official statistics, children’s books became the largest category in 2016, and in 2018 they accounted for one quarter of the total book sales market, pushing education (textbooks and supplementary materials) into second place, and social sciences in third.

For new works published in 2018, education was the largest category, followed by economics, business management, literature, social science, and children’s, suggesting that the recent reductions in new ISBNs have specifically targeted trade publishers rather than education. The long-tail sales cycle of contemporary classics in fiction and children’s publishing may also contribute to a reduction in new acquisitions and publications (see below).

2.1 Fiction Bestsellers 2018

In 2018, eight of the top ten fiction titles for the year were published ten or more years ago; six were first published more than 30 years ago. Industry insiders and authors suggest that ever-tighter censorship is largely responsible for an absence of new popular fiction genres or authors. In addition, government pressure to reduce the numbers of new ISBNs issued each year to certain publishers has seen new title acquisitions consolidated into a shrinking group of publishers who are reluctant to risk news voice or genre.

Four of the top ten fiction titles for 2018 were works in translation.

The 2018 top seller, Yu Hua’s literary fiction work To Live, was first published in 1993, and has consistently featured in the top 40. Its position at #1 was thanks in part to a special 25th anniversary edition as well as endorsements from teen idol Jackson Yee, whose online support for the novel on social media resulted in 7.8m post forwards and 620k comments.

Ordinary World by Lu Yao (#6) also benefited from an anniversary, celebrating 30 years since its publication. In addition to appearing on the Chinese middle school reading curriculum, the novel received a boost from the Chinese government, naming it one of the most influential novels of the four-decade reform and opening period.

The only new trend to speak of in fiction was the emergence of sci-fi into the mainstream, with Liu Cixin’s 2007 trilogy The Three Body Problem breaking the dominance of contemporary classics to take third, fourth, and fifth places. While the first book was published more than ten years ago, sci-fi has only recently moved from the margins of subculture into the mainstream, making its first appearance in China’s top ten in 2015. The trend looks likely to continue, with film adaptation of Liu Cixin’s novella The Wandering Earth taking RMB2bn (£228.4m) at the cinema during the 2019 Chinese New Year holiday week. Whether this marks a bonanza for science fiction writers generally, or just for Liu Cixin remains to be seen.

2.2 Non-fiction Bestsellers 2018

In 2017, a book based on the speeches and diaries of President Xi Jinping took the #1 spot in nonfiction bestsellers in China. In 2018, books based on Xi’s philosophy and biography took first and second places. Sales performance is largely driven by government departments and state-affiliated enterprises instructing employees to read and share his books, guaranteeing the Chinese leader a bestseller.

Elsewhere in non-fiction, backlist titles continue to be popular: Six Records of a Floating Life was first
published in 1877, giving author Shen Fu the prize as China’s oldest bestseller. Two of the most popular non-fiction books were from foreign authors: American journalist Edgar Snow’s classic 1937 narration of Mao’s Long March, Red Star Over China, and American entrepreneur and investor Ray Dalio’s 2017 book Principles: Life and Work.

2.3 Children’s Bestsellers 2018

Evergreen classics by foreign children’s authors continue to be popular, with E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web at #1, ahead of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince (#7) and Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mister Fox (#10). While brands and licensing tie-in properties such as Peppa Pig and Lego continue to enjoy major success, they tend to not appear as bestsellers, selling copies across their large title and format ranges rather than achieving the sales in single storybooks.

2.4 Top English Language Titles (imports)

The popularity of Chinese language editions powers the top seller lists for imported English language titles, with Ray Dalio’s Principles appearing on both Chinese and English language bestseller lists.

Children’s books continue to sell extremely well, accounting for 60-70% of imports from major international publishers into China. The market is, however, extremely fragmented, with specialist retailers in imported children’s books selling full ranges of major brands and licensing characters in large numbers. As such, bestseller lists from single retailers do not accurately reflect sales into the overall market.

There is no published data on the imported book retail market or bestseller rankings.

2.5 Translation and sub-rights agencies

The majority of international rights trading into China is conducted through the three largest sub-rights agencies, Andrew Nurnberg Associates (ANA), Bardon-Chinese Media Agency, and Big Apple Agency. Increasingly, multinational publishing companies and larger literary agencies handle Chinese rights sales in-house. Other agencies with growing presences in the market include CA Link International, Grayhawk Agency, and Peony Literary Agency.

The internal Chinese publishing market is largely un-agented, with author agreements entered into through direct approaches from publishers. Chinese publishers today are, however, used to dealing with agents when acquiring rights to works from overseas.

Major publishers and agencies report that average advances for foreign titles have increased from around RMB32k (£3,700) in 2016 to around RMB42.7k (£4,800) in 2018.

Anti-money laundering legislation targeted at corrupt businesses has made foreign currency transfers complex and expensive for Chinese publishers. All foreign currency payments must be included in a fully executed agreement in order to secure bank approval, meaning that any additional minor fees such as file charges must be reflected in an addendum or new agreement. Transfers are limited to US$50k per transaction, requiring publishers to divide larger payments into multiple invoices. Chinese banks routinely require significant personal information from the recipient of a payment, including passport numbers for the company’s legal representative.

2.6 Selected sub-rights agencies in China 4

2.7 Top Books in Chinese Translation, 2018

Popular science, popular history, culture, business and management, and prize-winning fiction tend to be the most popular categories of book to be acquired for translation by Chinese publishers. In the children’s category, major brands and licensing IP, award-winning picture book series, and mainstream science, history, and culture continue to be popular.

3. Education Publishing

Sales of education titles through online retailers continued the trend of previous years in 2018, and grew faster than the overall market, registering 18% against overall market growth of 11.4%5. This trend may have been exaggerated by government pressure to reduce the number of new titles in the market that seemingly focused on trade books. Teaching aids for primary and secondary schools accounted for 43.25% of sales, by far the largest single category within education publishing. Examination preparation, foreign language learning, college textbooks, and general teaching aids also continued to perform well, together accounting for more than 90% of the overall education market.

3.1 Bestselling education books (2018)

Data from online retailer JD.com suggests that the main consumers of education books are aged 36-45 (45% of buyers), with 30% aged 26-35 (bearing in mind that children’s books will be primarily purchased by adults).

Chinese publishers continue to look to foreign publishers for ELT materials, as well as anything addressing STE(A)M subjects, levelled readers, and advice on the development of the childhood brain.

4. Chinese Publishers

4.1 Top state-owned publishing groups

There is no published reporting of revenue or profit figures for China’s publishers. The following list is based on Beijing OpenBook data, released in January 2019, and publishers are ranked in order of revenue size.

4.2 Top state-owned trade publishing houses

4.3 Top private trade publishers

China’s largest private trade publishers (or culture companies) must rely on publishing partners to supply ISBNs and authorize print runs, but will typically handle all other parts of the publishing process in-house, from acquisition and contract through editorial and design to sales, distribution, and marketing. Smaller private publishers may rely on their partner to provide additional services, in particular sales and distribution. The following companies are ranked in order of revenue size.

Other private trade publishers

Alphabetic order

4.4 Top education publishers

There is limited private involvement in education publishing, although there is one major player in the top education publishing houses, the publishing arm of the country’s largest private language school and education chain, New Oriental Culture Co. The following companies are ranked in order of revenue size.

5. China’s Booksellers and Importers

Booksellers in China have experienced times as tough as anywhere else in the world in recent years. An estimated 50% of all privately-owned bookshops went out of business in the ten years to 2011. The shift to online retail was a large part of the reason. An additional factor was the development of a commercial high street away from state-owned stores to private and foreign entities with customer-focused service that meant older booksellers struggled to keep up.

Book retail in 2018 was worth RMB89.4bn (£10.2bn), up from RMB80bn (£9.1bn) in 2017. Online book retail grew +24% in the year to RMB57.3bn (£6.5bn), accounting for 64% of all book sales in China, up from a 57% share in 2017.

The number of physical sales outlets for books grew +4.3% YOY in 2018(7), while the value of sales through their doors fell -6.69% to RMB3.6bn (£411m)8. This one-year decline wiped out five years of slender growth in retail from bricks and mortar stores thanks, in part, to a series of government tax breaks and subsidies intended to support book retail in the country.

There is no published breakdown of book retail statistics in China. In addition, government data combines book distribution entities together, including publishers’ in-house distribution as well as state and privately-owned retailers.

5.1 Import and distribution agencies

All foreign books (those published under a non-Chinese mainland ISBN) must be brought into China via one of 40 state-owned import agencies. The role of these agencies is, in part, political, acting as a filter for sensitive and unwelcome content. Import agencies are also commercial distributors, supplying online and bricks-and-mortar retailers.

There is no published data for the imported book market in China, which accounts for an estimated 9% of the market (c. RMB804m, or £91.9m). Children’s books make up approximately 70% of the total market for imported trade books.

Publishers must open accounts with the importers rather than individual retailers or booksellers. Importers will then open accounts with retailers. This is part of the reason imported book data is so opaque. Importer will operate separate accounts to service larger booksellers, ensuring the necessary credit limits and stock availability. Publishers are still responsible for making sales calls to retailers, however, and then make an additional call to a mutually agreed importer to service any orders.

Individual importers will have different strengths, including education, trade, periodicals, children’s, and business, although most will handle everything to some degree. Only six importers have the right to import foreign e-books.

5.2 Selected import agencies

5.3 Bricks-and-mortar retail

Until the early 2000s, China’s bricks-and-mortar booksellers were predominantly multi-storey malls run and owned by state-owned enterprises. Distinguished by their brutalist interior décor and limited customer service, over the past 15 years these major retailers have privatised, refurbished, or closed entirely as they confronted a new retail reality. Into that gap has stepped a new generation of private booksellers, ranging from single store lifestyle boutiques to major nationwide independent chains and everything in between.

Most physical retailers operate online bookstores, in the form of branded marketplace sites on Tmall, JD.com, Amazon.cn or Dangdang.com, or through their own sites.

The largest of the independent chains, the 180-store Sisyphe bookseller, now operates in 47 cities, offering events and special offers to its 3.5m active members. Commercial success for China’s bricks-and-mortar booksellers lies not in their ability to discount more aggressively than their online rivals, but in their ability to build and service a community of young people looking for a bookshop that reflects their lifestyle choices and grows their friendship network.

A limited number of foreign-owned stores operates in China, the most visible being Taiwan’s Eslite and PageOne, originally headquartered in Singapore and acquired by private Chinese publisher Thinkingdom in 2017. A limited range of imported titles in English, complex Chinese, and Japanese are generally sold by the top independent stores, although the best range is still to be found in stores specialising in imported books. Provided they can demonstrate their copies came from an authorised importer, any retailer may sell imported titles.

5.4 Selected physical retailers

5.5 Online retail

China’s online booksellers have continued to grow their market share, taking increasing retail away from their bricks-and-mortar rivals. The share of online sales tipped over the 50% mark in 2016. In 2018, online sales grew +24% to RMB57.3bn (£6.5bn).

There are three major online retailers jockeying for position: JD.com, Dangdang.com, and Amazon.cn. Each of the three companies sells a combination of local publishing, imports, and e-books, with Amazon leading the way on imported print and e-book titles. The trio are increasingly shifting their business model more towards marketplace selling. Here, they must content with a fourth player – the Alibaba-owned Tmall – who carries around 30k booksellers offering both print and e-books.

There is no published data as to the value or volumes of books bought and sold through the numerous private retailers operating on Tmall.

5.6 Major online retailers

5.7 Social e-commerce

In addition to the major online retailers, a growing cohort of social e-commerce sites sell narrow ranges of specific titles to closed membership communities via the WeChat platform, or more widely through Weibo and Tmall stores. There are many specialist retailers of imported children’s books in this area, as well as other influencer channels such as the Logical Thinking (Luojisiwei) WeChat account, offering twoday title promotions on adult non-fiction that can generate revenues of up to RMB45m (£5.1m) per title.

Social e-commerce sellers in the children’s category tend to include a range of members-only deals, video guides on how to use the books, advice from child education experts, and more. They will often place large firm sale orders with foreign publishers and require a degree of customisation in order to create a special selling point.

Successfully accessing and servicing this customer base generally requires local support, as requirements can be complex. Typically, China’s social e-commerce players also need rapid turnaround and approvals from foreign publishers.

5.8 Selected social e-commerce retailers

6. Audio and E-books

6.1 Audiobooks

Much as in other countries around the world, audio publishing is having something of a moment in China. And as is generally the case, this market operates somewhat differently in China than it does in other parts of the world. with audio platforms offering a combination of live broadcasts, mini-courses (essentially non-fiction books broken down into episode), and the more familiar audiobooks.

The market has expanded rapidly over the past three years, with two main players Ximalaya and Dedao claiming the largest libraries of exclusive audio adaptations, at around 1,000 each. Other players include Qingting FM (Dragonfly), Lizhi FM (Lychee), and LRTS. Additionally, online booksellers Dangdang and Jingdong have established their own audio presence, as well as a handful of publisher-owned sites such as CITIC Press.

In general terms, audio still has a very low market penetration rate, at around 20%. While the value of China’s audiobook market reportedly grew +34.8% in 2018 to RMB4.5bn (£518m), the total number of users grew at the slower rate of +26.5%, to 383m people, according to online reports. Users are relatively young, with 63.4% under 30 years of age.

Dominant market player Ximalaya claims 300m subscribers to their media platform. Users spend an average of 180 mins per day listening to their media, generating 3bn hours of listening. A total of 77.5% of users say they are prepared to pay for content on the site. The company claims that around half of the traffic to their platform comes for their audiobooks, and the category accounts for 60% of listening time. The challenge now is to ensure audio content becomes more widely used and shared, rather than becoming established as a niche product.

6.2 Selected audiobook platforms

6.3 E-books

At the opposite end of the digital market China’s e-book market. Accounting for an estimated 2% of the overall book market, e-books have never managed to meaningfully find their place in the Chinese market. Amazon’s Kindle device, as well as various local counterparts such as the iReader, are available in the country, and e-readers are seen on subway trains in major cities. They are, however, used by a small proportion of the very heaviest book readers.

Part of the reason for an apparent lack of interest in e-books may be the popularity of online literature. These works of fiction and non-fiction are written specifically to be read on mobile devices, and are very different in form and style to e-books adapted from long form print. There are an estimated 300m registered users of online literature sites, with 45.6% of Chinese netizens holding an account. The largest, Tencent’s China Literature, operates a stable of 19 sites that hold the rights to 10m virtual books in more than 200 genres.

There are around 30 companies authorised for e-book business and publishing, including specialist technology companies and a handful of publishers.

Five import agencies are permitted to import foreign language e-books into the country: CNPIEC, CEPIEC, CIBTC, BPIEC, and SBT (see section 5.2 for agency details).

6.4 Selected digital reading platforms

7. Directory

7.1 Selected trade bodies

7.2 Selected book publishers (trade and education)

7.3 Selected private publishers (culture companies)

7.4 Selected sub-rights agencies

This report was produced for the Publisher’s Association by Pixie B Ltd, a commercial consultancy and advisory specialising in the book, television and film industries in North Asia. Pixie B was co-founded by Jo Lusby and Michelle Lombard and is based in Hong Kong. For more information, please contact jo@pixieb.com or michelle@pixieb.com.